I had a spot of trouble at Gayhane once. This was during  those crazy five years between 2005 and 2010, when I was riding the Balkan wave, living out my midlife crises with large quantities of booze and untold substances. 

Back then I wasn’t just interested in Balkan, but also Oriental, specifically Turkish music. I loved everything from halay beats to the groovy psychedelia of Anadolu rock to the over-the-top pathos of arabesk. But while on any given Saturday night in Berlin back at the peak of the Balkan Beats wave there were at least one or two Balkan parties you could attend, Turkish parties were few and far between.

This struck me as a bit strange, as Turks made up the biggest minority in Berlin, bigger than the ex-Yugo community. Maybe religion played a role. I mean, most Turks didn’t go out on the weekend to party, dance and get drunk like Germans or ex-Yugos did. The exceptions were weddings, which constituted a subculture all on its own, and there, more often than not, alcohol didn’t play a role.

I would eventually get into the Turkish wedding scene together with my wife, as wedding crashers, but this came later. At the time we are talking about – from 2005 to 2010 – I had no entrée into the Turkish community. I liked Turkish music but I didn’t know how to get at it. There were two exceptions – DJ Ipek’s Gayhane parties and Zigan Aldi’s Kreuzberger Nächte.

I don’t know how exactly I got turned on to DJ Ipek. I suspect it was through Jugotonka, the Croatian DJane who was putting on her own turbo-folk laden Balkan parties around the time that Robert Soko was doing his much more famous Balkan Beats nights.   One of Jugotonka’s parties was her Balkan Witches night, which she did with two other DJanes, one DJ Lepa and the other one was DJ Ipek. I think that was how I first heard about Ipek.

In contrast to Germans in Berlin, most of whom tended to be sympathetic towards the homosexual lifestyle, in fact, most of whom it seemed practiced  the homosexual lifestyle, Turks, and certainly most religious Turks (who I would wager constituted the majority of Turks in Berlin), took a more conservative view.

“It’s impossible, in and of itself,” said a Turkish acquaintance of mine about homosexuality. “It’s a contradiction in terms. It’s rejected by our religion flat out. But here in Germany you are confronted with it on a daily basis. Unfortunately, you can’t sound off about it. Someone’s going to take it the wrong way, or interpret it differently. Society  as a whole has gone to the dogs. As a result of all of our so-called freedoms. And then you say, ‘but God intended to make me a woman’. No. God made you a man! Deal with it! You can’t go zick-zack. If you don’t stick to the straight path, you’ll reap retribution.” 

Such was more or less, the standard view on homosexuality amongst most Turks in Berlin.  Whereas you came across a lot of Germans who found their homosexual lifestyle perfectly compatible with the Lutheran faith (you even came across gay pastors in Berlin) even  out-and-out Turkish homosexuals saw Islam and homosexuality as something mutually irreconcilable. 

And then there was Gayhane.

Gayhane was this  monthly Oriental club night, presided over by DJ Ipek, geared at the Turkish and Middle Eastern queer scene which took place at SO36, Berlin’s first punk club.

I was a fan of Ipek’s music, had bought her two compilation CDs, Import-Export and Beyond Istanbul. After I had clued myself in on her musical taste I arranged an interview with her at her Neukölln WG. It would be the first of three or four interviews which strangely, never resulted in any articles getting published. It was odd because she was such a celebrated figure in the Berlin club scene and there was no shortage of ink spent on her doings. That itself was probably why I couldn’t get anything published on her; there was already so much on her as it was. 

“I play for everyone,” Ipek told me. “My target group is people in general. But of course, many gays and lesbians come to my parties and many people with immigrant backgrounds, but also many curious Germans.  In Gayhane the audience is very mixed, but predominantly lesbian, gay and transgender and at the same time Turkish, Arabic, Kurdish, Balkan and Indian and lesbian and gay and people of different generations and social classes.”

Ipek had been DJ-ing  since 1994 at SO-36, putting on “Queer Orient” parties, back when ethno beats were rare on Berlin dancefloors. Gradually the word spread that Ipek did Oriental and after some women’s soli (solidarity) actions, she started to get booked for clubs in Berlin. For around twelve years now she had managed to make a living spinning records in Berlin, in Istanbul, Tel Aviv, Miami just to name a few of the hip world capitals she played in.

Berlin is a city rich in ethnic subcultures. Detractors  say “parallel societies”. This is born out musically as well. Popular arabesk and pop singers from Turkey periodically come to play in never-heard-of venues to exclusively Turkish audiences, entirely ignored by the mainstream German press.

Not only would a non-Turk feel out of place there, but Ipek herself confessed to feeling awkward in such scenes.

“I wouldn’t go to Turkish parties because it is not my taste. I don’t like the music. It’s too heterosexual.  It’s so confined.  You have to dress up.  You have to carry yourself in a certain way.  And the possibility that there is a punch-up there is higher than if you go to Gayhane.”

Gayhane – gay, as in gay, and “hane”, as in the Turkish word for “domicile” – is a place where homosexual Turks and Arabs, who might otherwise feel ill at ease among their own traditional  milieus, can relax and let their hair down a bit. Ipek called it a “return to a familiar scene” where gays, lesbians and transgenders “don’t have to suppress any part of their personality.”

At the time I thought that being Turkish and being queer were two mutually antagonistic things. This was before I went to Istanbul to live for a year and found Taksim nightlife marked by a certain queer sensibility. Also, the neighbourhood where I resided, the rough and tumble mahalle of Tarlabaşı was remarkable for the number of transsexuals who lived there.

“Some Germans think that among Turks there are no lesbians and gays,” said Ipek. “One thinks that homosexuality is something Western.  But if you go to Turkey and say that you are lesbian, people won’t say to you, ‘You are lesbian because you are German’, but rather you are lesbian because you are lesbian and maybe you are sick or maybe you are completely normal.  But here in Germany people have the idea being lesbian and Turkish is something which has to pose a problem.”

Tracking down a Gayhane story which never managed to see the light of day, I looked up another Gayhane figure – a bellydancer named Cihangir who would perform at SO36 on a regular basis.

Cihangir was born in the Western-leaning Izmir. Very early on he developed a love for music and dance, so that as a child he was asked to perform for traditional sunnet (circumcision) parties.

Later, Cihangir came to Berlin with his family. Growing up in the districts of Wedding and Charlottenburg, he listened to Oriental music and danced at home. 

“Dancing was something soulful for me. Like someone who would sit down and practice yoga, dancing was like that for me.  It was a lot of fun, and apparently it does have elements of yoga and chakra, too. These wave-like movements are supposed to be very spiritual.” 

Cihangir first started dancing professionally in 1996 at a Gay Orient Night in Tempelhof, which became Salon Oriental, which then became Gayhane. At Gayhane Cihangir performs mostly belly dance.

“But one doesn’t just dance with one’s belly. That would be boring. I also bring elements of flamenco, jazz, ballet, comedy. I do classical oriental, fantasy Oriental- it’s all a show. You have to entertain people. I dance fifteen minutes usually. A stripper earns three times as much and is over in five minutes. There’s nothing more boring than two hours of Oriental dance. I have to vary my routine.”

On the subject of being Turkish and queer, Cihangir had this to say:

“There are all sorts of singers, like Tarkan, who are gay, though he still says he isn’t gay. In the Orient we are not so offensive, we are not so open. Everything is veiled and behind closed doors and secret.”

Asked if there is any opposition to Gayhane by the religiously minded, Cihangir says, “I don’t think they know what is going on, and if they did I’m sure they would think it was total Sodom and Gomorrah.”

About the target audience at Gayhane, Cihangir said:

“We want Kiki and Mickey. We want Shishi and Fifi. We want Husein with Ahmed. We want Mathias and Jürgen.  We want Ingrid and Hans. We want everyone. We want heterosexuals and gays.”

And yet, was this really so?

As I started attending the Gayhane parties a couple things struck me. The first thing was the door policy. Those not looking gay enough were quizzed at the door on their sexual orientation, and if you didn’t fit the bill you could be turned away. Reverse discrimination?

“I think it’s simply stupid to say, we’re not letting heterosexual people in anymore,” said Cihangir. “One can’t do that.  It’s just as discriminating as when in a heterosexual locale they say, we’re not letting in transvestites or gays. It’s just the same.”

But there it was, if you showed up with a girl at your side, you were persona non grata at Gayhane. Once inside people looked at you askance.

Personally, I didn’t find the music all that spectacular. It was a very kind of high-octane disco-dance music that you heard coming from the DJ booth. Not a lot of pathos driven arabesk tracks, which I had been expecting. There was also something slightly paradoxical about the song selection, most of the songs having a heterosexual cast at odds with the explicit mood of the night. 

I confronted Ipek with this one time and she said that, yes, it sometimes happened that she would be criticized outright for playing music that reinforced “chauvinistic” and traditional gender roles. 

It once happened that a German woman came up to Ipek at Gayhane and asked her if she had any music from “matriarchal countries”. Asked what she meant, the woman complained that among Turks and Arabs there was so much violence against women; why play songs that tacitly supported such a culture? Ipek was quick to rejoin:

“For this person it was perfectly clear: violence against women was something that had to do with Arabic and Turkish communities with an Islamic background. But I said to her to quit coming at me with her Eurocentric way of thinking and then she flipped me off and went away.”

Of course there were a lot of queers at Gayhane: they had all come out of the woodwork for the party. But what struck me was that there were a lot of straight-seeming Turkish women too. The reason being that irrespective of sexual orientation, Gayhane was the only regular Oriental club night in Berlin that played Turkish and Arabic songs. As such it attracted not only gays and lesbians but also straights who just wanted to get down to Oriental beats. This, despite a strict anti-hetero door policy.

And this is where I got into trouble one night. I don’t know whether it was the result of the drugs I was taking, but after being quizzed as to my sexual orientation at the door, once inside I proceeded to hit on a couple of very hot Turkish girls. They, however, were less interested in getting hooked that night, than dancing to some Oriental music, unmolested and unperturbed. And then to be confronted by an asshole like myself. It was not on.

They basically told me to take a hike. But rather than leaving them in peace I proceeded to spray them with beer from my bottle of Becks. The security was called and they threw me out of the club. From then on I had Hausverbot at SO36.

I went gracefully enough. And that was the last time I partied at Gayhane. I was now persona non grata at yet another Oranienstrasse venue.